The Revival of Asli Grape Cultivation in the Beautiful Kerkennah Archipelago Islands

23 Apr 2024

"The Kerkennah Archipelago is a group of small, beautiful, and mostly uninhabited islands located about twenty kilometers from Sfax, Tunisia. Its cultural and biological diversity is threatened by climate change, soil salinization, and olive monoculture. The Slow Food Al Majarra community is committed to preserving the indigenous El Asli grape. We are empowering local producers, developing agroecology, and creating a sustainable tourism circuit to give a future to a heritage landscape.” "

- Mohamed Nejib KACHOURI, the referent of the project Kerkennah, Terre de Saveurs et de Patrimoine Génétique – Préservation des Raisins Autochtones El Asli  -

The native Asli grape, indigenous to the island, faces a current threat. Olive cultivation is encroaching upon a 500-hectare area that was originally dedicated by the islanders’ ancestors to this crop. Preserving this land is crucial, as it embodies both tangible and intangible aspects of the cultural heritage of the Kerkennah archipelago.

According to Herodotus, a Greek historian and geographer, vines and olive trees have been cultivated on the Kerkennah Islands since Carthaginian times. Additionally, Jean Despois, a specialist in the Maghreb during the French colonial period, asserted that this vineyard was the sole large Tunisian vineyard in existence before the establishment of the French protectorate in 1881.

An extract from UNESCO’s Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Habitat in Island Ecosystems, dated 1981, states: “It’s a rare thing to find a real vineyard in an arid Mediterranean region where rainfall averages no more than 250 mm a year. The Asli variety forms the basis of the vineyard. It is renowned for its drought resistance, productivity, and high sugar concentration. This last quality is the reason for its name (asli means honey in Arabic).”

Asli is a vigorous, high-yielding grape variety. Its tree-shaped and drooping vine has long, reddish, well-striped shoots with fine, slightly twiggy tendrils. The grapes have a small number of seeds. It is mainly used to make raisins but is also used, according to a tradition that belonged to the Jews of Sfax, to make a wine, locally known as Assir, with a very high alcohol content (16° to 17°), reminiscent of Madeira wine. 

This variety has the advantage of being able to keep its fruit on the vine for a very long time, and some of it dries out before harvesting, which takes place in early August. The women who carry out this work spread the bunches out in the sun, placing them on a layer of brushwood, esparto grass, or shawl to avoid contact with the ground. The grapes dry in around ten days. The natives prepare these raisins more for personal consumption than for sale, which is limited and entirely local. 

Slow Food already included the Asli grapes and the Asli wine in the Ark of Taste catalog, as products threatened with extinction. 

Why was Asli grape cultivation abandoned?

Winemakers, driven by the preferences of consumers, are increasingly oriented towards non-native varieties considered more interesting from a commercial viewpoint. This situation has greatly contributed to the abandonment of local cultivars, some of which have become rare. Nevertheless, due to the geographical location and growing conditions, the native varieties possess a better adaptation and acclimatization capacity and are known for their resistance to harsh soil and climate conditions (drought, calcareous soil, extreme temperatures, and saltwater spray). 

 

Another recent challenge for the Asli vineyards has been the fact that the Tunisian State, to increase its income from export goods, has encouraged farmers to plant olive trees, giving them small olive plants for free to be planted in place of the vineyards. 

Farmers recognize now that having introduced the olive tree into areas once given over to vines by ancestors was a mistake. What’s more, the oil from the encouraged variety is of mediocre quality and doesn’t keep long enough. 

The “Kerkennah, Terre de Saveurs et de Patrimoine Génétique – Préservation des Raisins Autochtones El Asli” project has captured the attention of Kerkennah’s civil society, not least because the revival of Asli grape cultivation has rekindled the inhabitants’ attachment to their traditions and cultural heritage, reflecting their pride in their island identity. 

 

A Slow Food community of Asli producers

The project, financed thanks to the Negroni Week Fund, succeeded in bringing together winegrowers, restaurateurs, hoteliers, municipalities, cultural groups, youth, and tourism officials

As a result, the project led to the formation of a Slow Food community of Asli producers, and in the same spirit, it was envisaged to create a Slow Scout community for young people to become the archipelago’s biodiversity defenders, scouts, and tourist guides.

The Slow Food community worked on mapping and identifying the vines and working with experts in viticulture and genetics to study their unique characteristics. It succeeded in creating a network of local producers, developing agroecological training, implementing a sustainable tourism circuit, and also organizing conferences, meetings, and tastings. 

The Presidium of Charfia

In the archipelago of Kerkennah, there is also a Presidium that has operated for a few years, the Presidium of Charfia, and traditional fishing. It is important to bear in mind that the added value of Slow Food’s projects in these areas lies in considering the ecosystems, the biodiversity they contain, the agricultural systems, and the local gastronomic traditions as a unique entity to be enhanced.

At first glance, it would seem that there is no connection between the grape project and the Slow Food Charfia Presidium. However, on closer examination of the recipes for dishes using both charfia products and grapes as ingredients, the relationship becomes obvious. What’s more, in the past, the installation of the charfias was an occasion for festivities and solidarity. Fishermen would gather to install the charfias, each playing a specific role. At the end of each sea expedition, the fishermen were welcomed by the villagers to share a lunch of various dishes topped with skilfully prepared raisins, mixing savory and sweet flavors.

It’s worth noting that fishermen are also winegrowers and that in the recent past, fishing was mainly done with charfia. The introduction of nets in sea fishing by trawlers is a relatively recent practice.

In Kerkennah, as in all regions of Tunisia, the task of processing agricultural products for family consumption often falls to the women.

The Asli grape harvest, which used to last 2-3 days, was a real feast. One woman fondly recalls how her father used to buy her new clothes on two special occasions: Eid el-Fitr (the end of Ramadan) and the grape harvest. It was also a time when young girls carefully prepared to charm boys and many engagements were announced. In addition to these festivities, another celebration associated with the Asli grape was the preparation of a traditional Eid el-Fitr dish based on salted fish and raisins, called ‘Charmoula in Sfax’ and ‘Mitchaoucha in Kerkennah.’

Since 2022, Slow Food has served as the official global giving partner of Negroni Week, you can find more here.

 

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